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Archive for the ‘Seasons’ Category

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The Winter solstice has passed and with it the darkest day and the longest night. As the sun reaches its lowest point in the sky and begins to climb again, we celebrate rebirth and life, symbolised most often these days in the evergreens and sparkling lights with which we decorate our homes.

Often this is a time of year that involves reflection on the year that has passed and the gentle stirrings of hopes and dreams for the year to come. Our own inner process can be seen reflected in the natural world around us, our energy turned inwards, ready to emerge again with the awakening spring.

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So often aspects of consciousness can be seen reflected in nature, it almost seems to me at times that we are alive within a living allegory, a story made manifest in the very fabric of the world we inhabit. And underpinning it all, the nature of our wonderful Mother Earth is not unlike the nature of our consciousness.

The Earth provides for us everything that we know or can conceive of in our physical reality. Even things that appear unnatural like the plastics and pollutants that clog our lands and our waters are made from things that come from the Earth, only the processes they have gone through have made them damaging to us and other life forms. So it is with our thoughts. Even the most horrific of thoughts arise from consciousness but have become mutilated by other aspects of mind, present conditions and collective patterns.

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The Earth itself, like consciousness, just is. Things we label as good or bad, healing or poison, reward or punishment, may all be seen in it, but are not it. Both Earth and consciousness are beyond concepts of good and evil.

Too easily we characterise people, individually and collectively, as either inherently good but misguided, or inherently selfish and bad, but able to control themselves with proper limitations. The field of consciousness is a field of potential however, from which anything can and does arise depending on what is cultivated and how. The greatest kindness, the awful act of violence; the most sublime landscape, the island of plastic bags floating in our ocean.

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For me, disillusioned as I may sometimes become, there will always be hope for humanity because the field of potential is ever present. Within a larger picture than our own individual lives, even in the worst conditions, new life will eventually spring again.

We humans struggle with our perceptions of ourselves as part of nature, yet alienated by our individual experiences of life. Buddhists refer to our human lives as a ‘precious human rebirth’, not because humans are seen as separate from other beings – interconnection is the foundation of much of Buddhist thought – but because humans do perhaps have an enhanced ability to recognise their true nature. The flip side of this is of course that the mind has incredible power and can lead us on all sorts of false trails, but even when mind is totally out of control, consciousness is still what illuminates it and allows it to be, just as the Earth allows everything we can see or touch.

Wishing you all a wonderful festive season, however you choose to celebrate it, and a blessed 2013.

 

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Simplest Rosehip Jam

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A few days ago I spent a lovely afternoon with my friend Deborah making rosehip jam from a stash that were picked last month and stored in the freezer. I noted on my walk yesterday that there are still a fair few rosehips about, though they are starting to look thin on the ground, so I thought I would share this recipe with you before it gets too late to make it. Rosehips are always better after a frost anyway and it is only in the last week that we have had hard frosts in this part of the country. If you pick your rosehips before the frost then you can always pop them in the freezer like I did to sweeten them up a little.

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To make this recipe you need only four ingredients; rosehips, half a lemon, sugar and water and the method is simplicity itself. What is a little challenging is halving and de-seeding your hips before you begin which can be a surprisingly lengthy process so make sure you have allotted a good amount of time for it and perhaps enjoy it as a relaxing task whilst listening to music or watching a film. To do this you just need to cut the stems and bases off the hips, then slice them in half and scoop out the seeds and little irritating hairs which can make your hands itch after a while.

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Method:

  • Begin by adding  just enough water to cover the de-seeded rosehips (add too much and the resulting jam will be too runny) and bringing to a slow simmer.
  • Allow them to continue simmering for about 20 minutes, mashing regularly with a potato masher.
  • You should have a nice thick pulpy liquid at the end of this time which you now want to push through a sieve. I used a fairly coarse sieve as it’s nice to get as much of the pulp and goodness into your jam as possible. You really just want to catch all the odd seeds and hard bits of hip that inevitably get missed in the preparation, though you will end up losing some of the pulp of course too.
  • Weigh the rosehip pulp and put it back in the pan with an equal amount of sugar and the juice of half a lemon. 1kg of rosehip pulp and 1 kg of sugar will make about 6 to 8 average sized jars.
  • Bring to a gentle boil for about 10 minutes or unti the jam has thickened to your desired consistency. Try to avoid boiling for too long though as you don’t want to destroy too much of the precious vitamin C that rosehips are so rich in.
  • Transfer the finished jam to sterilised jars and enjoy spread lavishly on your bread/ crackers of choice.

I hope you enjoy the last of the seasons wild fruits before winter tightens its grip. For more lovely jam making recipes and tips see this post on the Herbarium by Carol Church whose jams are the finest around, as I can attest from personal experience!

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Autumnal Hues


Even though the year flows continuously through its seasonal changes, it is spring and autumn that I think of as the months of transition. Everything seems to shift and the feeling of settling and drawing inwards that autumn brings is as pronounced as the bright uprising and awakening that we sense in spring.

Who could fail to love the fierce brightness of autumn leaves?

Yet as autumn progresses and the branches become increasingly bare, it is the softness of the landscape that captivates me. The fields smudged in pastel hues, the full, soft blues and greys of the skies and the warm low light that all at once dampens the glare of the world, yet infuses that on which it falls with a subtle kind of vibrancy.

As autumn progresses to winter and nature appears to be sleeping, there is still flashes of life,  young leaves enjoying a brief flush before their frozen slumber begins.

Nettles can be seen in all their life stages. Many have died already, others are grown tall, sparse and straggly and yet where they have been cut back, there is plenty of new growth to be seen, a last little reminder of what we can look forward to when the Earth wakes again.

Poets and artists often depict autumn and winter as a time of death, but to me they are merely times of passage, when the old is let go and the new remains contained for a time in its gestation.

When we learn to look closely, the sweet song of life is always humming underneath.

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Several people I know have had a nasty cough this autumn that they are finding difficult to shift. As it seems like there is something going around, I thought I would share this herbal cough syrup recipe incase any of you are struggling with the same thing.

A syrup such as this one is lovely if your cough has both dry, tickly phases as well as wetter, more productive ones, as there are herbs here that wll address both states. As a syrup is slippery and sweet in nature though I would avoid it if your cough is very wet and you tend to be an all round damp sort of person. In this case tinctures and teas would probably suit you better.

As I have said before, don’t be put off if you don’t have all these herbs. A classic cough syrup recipe contains just liquorice and thyme herbs so you could try this if you wanted to make it more simple.

I don’t normally use a lot of sugar in the recipes I make but it does work best for this syrup unless you plan to use it all up within a couple of months and store it in the fridge, in which case honey should be fine as an alternative, sticking to equal parts raw honey to herbal liquid.

Herbal Cough Syrup:

25g Thyme leaf
25g Mullein leaf
25g Marshmallow root
25g Licorice root
25g Aniseed
25g Echinacea root
2 sticks Cinnamon

Water 1 litre
Sugar (organic soft dark brown is nicest) 750 g – 1 kg (depending on amount of liquid left after preparation.)
Peppermint EO – 8 drops (be sure you have 100% pure, preferably organic, essential oil, not fragrance oils which can be cut with all kinds of chemicals. Buy from a reputable supplier like Neal’s Yard or Materia Aromatica.)

Method:

Place the roots in a pan along with the aniseed and cinnamon sticks and cover with 1 litre of water. Bring to the boil and then turn down immediately to a gentle simmer, putting the lid on the pan to prevent too much evaporation. Simmer for 20 mins then turn off the heat and add the thyme and mullein allowing to infuse for a further 15 mins. When cooled enough to handle, strain the herbs out and measure how much liquid you have. You should be left with between 750ml and 1 litre.

Return this liquid to the pan along with an equal quantity in grams of soft dark brown sugar. So if you have 800ml liquid you will need to add 800g sugar and so on. Return to a simmer, stirring continually then remove from the heat and stir as it cools and thickens. Add in the drops of peppermint essential oil and stir well to ensure it is properly mixed in. Bottle in sterilised bottles.

You can take a tablespoon of this syrup as needed up to 8 times a day. For children younger than 12 make this a teaspoon and those between 2 and 6 a half teaspoon.

It makes a delicious mix so is a most pleasurable way to banish the season’s ailments.

Wishing you all good health!

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Elderberry Medicine

Common name: Elderberry
Latin: Sambucus nigra
Family: Adoxaceae
Botanical features: A small deciduous tree or large shrub with leaves in opposite pairs and large corymbs of creamy white flowers in June. The berries turn from green to purplish-black in colour and are held in large drooping clusters.
Key actions of the berries: Antioxidant, anti-rheumatic, anti-viral, diaphoretic, diuretic, hypolipidemic, laxative.

With autumn well underway and the evenings and mornings getting increasingly chilly it’s no wonder that many people are coming down with those mild colds and snuffles that often strike during the change of season.

Possibly the best preventative we have for this time of year is elderberry as unlike many other herbs that are specific for the immune system it seamlessly bridges the gap between food and medicine, making it both easy and enjoyable to include in our everyday diets.

Elderberries are also an important food source for the birds including blackcaps, robins and waxwings.

Green elderberries are never taken internally but were used in the past to make ointments for hemorrhoids.

Undoubtedly using the seasonal gifts of nature in our daily lives can ensure we enjoy our medicine as food and our food as medicine. Country people have always used these edible autumn berries to make preserves, wines, syrups and other delicious preparations that would have helped to keep them well and healthy throughout the winter months.

Elderberry isn’t the most delicious of the berries when eaten raw but a syrup made from elderberry with honey is sure to transport you to a heavenly realm of taste due to its rich, earthy sweetness. Elderberries should not really be eaten raw in any case (though it’s usually fine to sample a few) due to their ability to cause stomach aches, diarrhoea and vomiting. It is always best to cook or tincture them first. You can see some of my elderberry recipes here.

Elderberry is most famous these days for its antiviral and immune tonic effects which are in large part to do with its antioxidant properties. It is also mildly diaphoretic, especially when taken hot as a tea so can help you to sweat out colds and flus. Having a particular affinity for the respiratory system, elderberry will make a lovely tonic for you if colds tend to settle in your chest.

It contains many vitamins and minerals, being especially high in vitamin C and containing appreciable amounts of vitamins A and B6, so it feeds the immune system at the same time as exerting an anti-viral effect. A true ally, elderberry makes you stronger in yourself whilst also fighting at your side. The antioxidants can help stop viruses infecting a cell thus halting the spread of an illness and studies show that taking elderberry shortens the duration of an outbreak of influenza. Laboratory studies show elderberry extracts to be active against numerous strains of influenza but these need to be repeated in human trials before their claims can be substantiated.

Beautiful red stems on the elderberries.

Elderberry has an ORAC value of 14697 which is a measurement of the antioxidant capacity of different foods. This makes it one of the highest ranking of the berries, just after chokecherry but above blueberries. Rosehips however have one of the highest values of all being fantastically rich in vitamin C. Back in the 17th century John Evelyn wrote that elderberry extracts would ‘assist longevity’ and of course now we know that antioxidant containing foods are some of the most potent for protecting against premature aging.

Elderberries are particularly rich in antioxidant anthocyanins which are a type of flavonoid that is often found in red, blue or purple foods.

Antioxidants help to heal all our cells and are particularly useful where there is peripheral degeneration such as is commonly seen in diabetes. This most commonly affects circulation to the toes and eyes but a diet rich in antioxidants can help to heal damaged blood vessels and restore function. Elderberry is also thought to be able to lower blood sugar levels making it even more useful, though of course if you take it in a sugary syrup, jam or cordial it negates the effect somewhat! Best stick to tinctures or teas to maximise this property.

A serving of elderberries also contains about 13% of your daily intake of iron which may not seem a massive amount but is helpful when taken with other iron containing foods and herbs, especially as elderberry’s vitamin C content ensures the iron is well assimilated. In fact, Juliette de Bairacli Levy recommends elderberry for iron deficiency anaemia as well as for treating coughs, colds, sore throats and tonsillitis.

Elderberry is both diuretic and mildly laxative making it an all round cleansing remedy which was commonly used in the past for rheumatism and arthritis. According to Mrs Greive “It promotes all fluid secretions and natural evacuations.” Another use for it that has fallen by the wayside in modern times was for treating skin infections and it was no doubt due to it’s mixture of cleansing and immune promoting properties.

Current research is also being done into potential anti-tumour properties of elderberry. The combination of high antioxidant activity, gentle cleansing ability and bio-available nutrients mean it is possibly very useful and it has also been suggested to have anti-angeogenic properties.

There are also studies showing the cardioprotective qualities of elderberry due to its hypolipidemic and antioxidant potential. Natural polyphenol compounds can help to minimise LDL oxidation, LDL being the more harmful type of cholesterol.

There are a few potential interactions to consider when taking elderberry in medicinal doses, though these are at present theoretical. It may lower blood sugar therefore altering the effect of diabetic medications. Also by stimulating the immune system it may interfere with immune suppressing drugs and as a mild diuretic it may have an additive effect with diuretic medications.

Generally consumed in food like quantities however it is a gentle and safe remedy for the whole family and one we should all be taking advantage of at this time of year.

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September is such an exciting month because everything is shifting. It feels not quite one thing or another as there are still the vestiges of summer with bright sunny days and roses in the garden, meanwhile autumn is well underway with the hedgerows dripping in berries ready for the harvest.

Every year is different however and this year the elderberries have been sparser than I have ever known them before. I assume this is because it was so wet in June when the flowers were out, meaning many pollinators were not able to access them and fulfil their important task. Many of the trees near me look like this photo below.

Still after ranging further afield than normal I have managed a decent harvest, though I’ll need some more for tincture making before the season is out. How are the elderberries looking around you this year?

There are many other beautiful berries hanging heavy from the branches however and it is always wise to include them in your diet for their wonderful antioxidant properties that help to protect and heal every cell of the body.

The hawthorns are fat and fabulous this year, I suppose as they were pollinated before the heavy downpours came, the wet summer would have helped them grow large, if not necessarily more potent.

The blackberries are also wonderfully abundant, ripe and juicy, though the sloes seem thinner on the ground than usual in the blackthorn trees near my home. I have it on good authority however that they are growing well in other parts.

Blackberries

Sloes

Like sloes, the berries of guelder rose or cramp bark  (Viburnum opulus) and rowan or mountain ash (Sorbus acuparia) are not eaten raw but are good when cooked.

Guelder rose berries

In Saturday’s herb group we picked a good selection of berries to make into a delicious variant on my 5 berry syrup recipe which you can find here.

Berries simmering away

As you well know however, not all the berries in the hedgerow are safe to eat and all these pictured below would be well to avoid if you value the health of your internal organs, and in some cases your life.

Holly berries are toxic, avoid them.

The beautiful berries of the wayfaring tree turn from green to bright red to black throughout the late summer and autumn. Alas they can lead to vomiting and diarrhoea though so ’tis best to leave them be.

The yew berries, and specifically the seeds they contain, are highly poisonous.

The beautiful spindle berries give much pleasure to look upon but not to consume, they are also toxic.

Common or purging buckthorn lives up to it’s name.

Black bryony berries are not ones to make into jam or it may be the last piece of toast you get to enjoy.

Finally, the berries of woody nightshade may look enticing growing next to these blackberries but be sure to leave them out of your syrup. Related to the tomato you can see the resemblance can’t you?

This is in no way an exhaustive list but it covers the majority of species growing in my local area. As with all wild plants, if you are not sure of the identification it is best to leave well alone.

I’ll be back in a few days with a post looking at the medicinal properties of elderberries in more detail. In the meantime You can find some elderberry recipes in this post here from a couple of years ago.

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Please forgive me for clogging your inboxes with two photographic posts in as many days but I thought some people might find it interesting to have a closer look at the wild flowers we have growing here on the Downs at present. There is a spectacular array, many of them quite common but some rarer and more specific to the chalk grassland habitat.

Wildflower heaven

Common Knapweed

Red Clover

Self Heal

Round Headed Rampion

Devil’s Bit Scabious

Small Scabious

Field Scabious

Scabious in bud

Yellow Wort

Common Ragwort

Hawkbit

Bird’s Foot Trefoil

Ladies Bedstraw

Common Fleabane

Scarlet Pimpernel

Agrimony

Eyebright

Burnet Saxifrage

Yarrow

White Bryony

Mugwort

Small Tortoiseshell on Creeping Thistle

Hawkbit, burnet saxifrage and knapweed predominate in this picture

And finally one I am not sure of so if anyone knows I would be delighted to hear from you! I believe it may be Red Bartsia but as it doesn’t quite fit the description I remain slightly in doubt.

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I love the month of August. There are wildflowers carpeting the Downs, the first berries in the hedgerows, nettle seeds for harvesting and a variety of herbs blooming in the garden. The roses are in their second flush, there are birthdays and anniversaries to celebrate, friends to visit and an exquisite sense of fullness and completion that hangs ripe and heavy in the air, just on the tipping point of receding into the altogether different beauty of autumn.

Here are some of my highlights.

Wild flowers carpet the Downs

The last of this years strawberries.

The subtle beauty of chicory

Monarda fistulosa

Harvest of Monardas

Skullcap harvest

Teasel

Blooming echinacea

Calendula

Californian poppies

Plantain in flower

The very hungry caterpillars – I think cabbage whites

Sweet peas to scent the house

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Lammas, or it’s Gaelic equivalent Lughnasadh, is celebrated today in honour of the first harvest, the wheat harvest. Lammas is derived from the Anglo Saxon for ‘loaf-mass’ but was also known as the ‘festival of first fruits’ as the first berries are now starting to ripen in the hedgerows.

This is a time to be grateful for all the beauty of the natural world; for the harvest of herbs and foods, for the wildflowers and the insects that pollinate them, for our communities of friends and family and for the waters that feed the land and its creatures.

So often the nature of the human mind is to look for what is wrong and find ways to fix it. The coming months are a time to reap what we have sown and dwell in the simple gratitude of what we have, not looking for ways to change it or to make it better but just to be honest- as for most of us there is always more to be thankful for than there is to fix.

As Lammas draws to a close I am reminded of the closing words of the Desiderata:

And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul. With all its shams, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

 

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So it’s been gloom, gloom, gloom here in Sussex, as in so much of the UK, for most of the summer so far. Whilst I appreciate that Mother Nature’s patterns are greater than I can understand, the continual rain, mist and grey skies have started to feel a bit depressing over the last week or so. Summer is due to arrive in the next couple of days however and I know many of us are looking forward to enjoying a bit of sunshine. In the meantime I’m joining in with Debs and other bloggers over at Herbaholic’s Herbarium for a July Blog Party, the topic of which is ‘herbal sunshine’.

Lavender

Lots of herbs are at their peak during the summer and even though the weather has been poor, plenty of flowers and aerial parts are ready to harvest in the gaps between showers. Some of the herbs that I associate most strongly with summer are the herbal aromatics, many of which are native to the Mediterranean and somehow seem to carry the very essence of the sun with them, even here in this damp UK summer.

Aromatics are herbs with a strong taste and aroma. The aroma is created by volatile oils within the plant and can serve in numerous ways; to attract pollinators, as part of the plant’s immune system or to taste unpleasant to grazing animals. Many plants contain these volatile oils but only those with strong aromas contain sufficient quantities to really be considered true aromatics.

Thyme

What all the aromatics have in common is an ability to open up and move the body’s energy. They help to avoid stagnation and disperse anything that is stuck. They are great at drying dampness and moving the congestion that it often causes and they help us to feel brighter, more energised and uplifted as a result. Many people have commented to me that the weather has left them feeling sluggish and tired over the last couple of months and aromatics are just the thing to get everything moving again.

Therefore some could be used to move stuck catarrh in the sinuses, some to dispel gas in the gut and others to promote sweat and let go of trapped heat in the body. Think of how thyme or eucalyptus feel in the lungs, how peppermint feels in the gut or how ginger feels in the circulation; they all have a quality of movement and dispersing energy. The volatile oils in aromatic plants escape easily into the atmosphere when in the presence of warmth or light, that is why we can smell them in the air on a summer’s breeze. This ability of the volatile oils to move upward and outward reflects what we feel in the body when we take them, they move through us and clear the clogged up pathways as they go!

Mint infused honey.

They have a similar effect on a mental/ emotional level, opening and uplifting us when we feel glum and heavy. There is no doubt that a moderate amount of sunshine encourages feelings of joy, openness and relaxation and the aromatics can help fill that gap when the sun is nowhere to be seen. In fact, many of them are effective nervines such as lemon balm, lime blossom, chamomile, lavender or rosemary.

Many aromatics are warming and therefore useful for people who tend to feel the cold. Some however such as peppermint, rose and lemon balm are more cooling and therefore suitable for calming people who are hot.

Aromatics tend to have a positive effect on the digestion and the warming ones will stoke the digestive fires and improve metabolism. The more cooling ones often help to dispel gas and calm spasms and digestive cramps. One thing that is fantastic about these herbs is that they give their aromatic constituents up easily to a variety of different mediums and therefore make excellent infused oils, honeys, vinegars, teas and tinctures.

Lemon balm

Many of our favourite and best known herbal teas are made with aromatic herbs. Think mint, chamomile, fennel, lemon balm, cinnamon and ginger as examples. Most aromatics have quite a bit of cross over in their actions but some will have a certain resonance with a particular effect or area of the body such as thyme with the lungs, fennel with the digestion and rosemary with the circulation.

Teas that are particularly uplifting when the weather is poor include lemon verbena, lemon balm, rosemary, rose and cardamom as all these have a gently uplifting and cheering quality.

Adding generous amounts of  fresh oregano, sage, thyme, marjoram, basil or rosemary to our food also gives us this wonderful aromatic effect.

Infusing honey or vinegar with aromatic herbs and adding to foods is another lovely way to integrate them into our daily lives. Also, infusing them in oil and massaging them over the body can be delightfully restorative, or use a few drops of an appropriate essential oil mixed with a base oil to enjoy the beautiful aromas another way.

In this way we can go to the sun… even if the sun won’t come to us!

 

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